28 March 2020

Why Writing a Cozy Murder May Kill Me


For most of my author life, I have written mob capers. (Okay, there was that trilogy of ribald sexy fantasy that started my career, but surely that’s in my past. At least, that’s what I tell the priest.)

There have been seven of them. (Mob capers. Not priests.) An eighth will be coming, but in the meantime, my publisher wants me to write a cozy mystery. “You’re already writing comedy,” she said. “This is merely a different sub-genre. And cozies have a HUGE audience in the States.”

More than capers, she not so subtly pointed out.

I know about cozies. Some of my best friends write them. These are authors who can somehow do without sex, violence and profanity in their writing lives. My protagonists are not that sort of people, at least by choice, but I digress.

Thing is, if I was going to write cozies, I was going to have to clean up my language. It may come as a surprise, but mob caper characters don’t actually say, “Golly” and “Goodness me” when they get hit with a chunk of lead.

So as I embarked upon project clean-up, I pulled from my past, aka my dad’s side, which is firmly British. (As opposed to my mother’s side, which had bases in Sicily and The Hammer. ‘Nuf said.)
Most cursing in our house was Brit. I grew up on a steady diet of colourful West Country language.

However, this was a cozy, so I played it light. Even that didn’t work with my publisher.

The first word to go was Pits. “Pits!” Penelope yelled.

Publisher: “What is Pits? Nobody in the States will know what you mean. Use Rats.”

“Rats,” Penelope yelled, while closing the car bonnet.

That didn’t work. I tried again. It got worse.

Soon, ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’ were off the table.

Me: “Really?”

Me (throwing arms in the air): “I’m Canadian.”

“But they don’t know that,” she said, as if that were some sort of naughty secret we had to keep.

I retreated to Rats and Holy Cannoli.

But problems resurfaced quickly. “You’re a cow!” said Peter.

Publisher: “You can’t use cow. It sounds…”

Me: “Too trashy?”

Publisher: “Bestial. And with respect to the current scandals in Hollywood and DC…“

Me: “Gotcha. Not suitable for a cozy.”

It didn’t end there. Other phrases came under the knife. My whole vocabulary was at stake. Thing is, every non-naughty British expression seems to be…well…so much more expressive than the American equivalent.

“You filthy swine!” is much cooler than “You dirty pig!”

“Damn and blast!” really rocks it over “Darn and boom!”

It’s taken a long time and a lot of soul searching, but I may have come up with a solution to this whole cozy language problem. Something my publisher should be happy with, that isn’t a four letter word, and that shouldn’t offend the clergy. Not only that, it pretty well tells the tale.

“Curses!” said Penelope.



Melodie Campbell does her cursing south of Toronto. She was hardly ever a mob goddaughter, at least not recently. You can buy The Goddaughter and the rest of the series on Amazon.com and all the usual suspects.

Melodie Campbell
Winner of the Derringer and Arthur Ellis Awards
"Impossible not to laugh." Library Journal review of THE GODDAUGHTER

26 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Had me laughing out loud, Melody. Good luck with your clean up process. Now there's a business for someone. And editor who specializes in this type of clean up work.

Eve Fisher said...

Oh, the trouble of choosing the right word that will replace the "F-bomb!" Make your protagonist Australian or lower-class British and use "bloody" a lot. (I've done that a couple of times.) Make your protagonist Irish and use "feckin'" a lot. (Done that too, and some surprisingly straight people found it "cute".) (Also, the Irish use eejit a lot.) And there's freakin' (American version of feckin'.) It's a problem, because some times - especially these times - are what profanity was invented for!

Melodie Campbell said...

Thanks Paul! I just can't seem to do the cozy thing. Every time I try, the mob takes over, and the dame goes sultry, and the sax starts playing...

Melodie Campbell said...

Eve, if only my publisher wasn't insisting on my sounding American! It seems to be a kind of naughty secret to be Canadian selling in an American market. (Mind you, I do naughty pretty well...)

Eve Fisher said...

Yes, you do, Melanie! And keep doing it!

R.T. Lawton said...

Thanks for the laugh. I enjoyed your article this morning. Humor can be a difficult thing to write, but it helps when your mind is already bent that direction and you see the world in a different light.

Melodie Campbell said...

OH, my mind is bent, RT! grin. Thanks for commenting!

Steve Liskow said...

Friggin' great.

Trying to clean stuff up always sounds weird to me. I still remember when a character in A Streetcar Named Desire refers to his wife/girlfriend as a "rutting hunk," and all the people in the audience looked at each other incredulously. Williams managed to recapture the right sounds, but...please.

I find as I get older and more cynical that my writing is turning darker and I have less patience with people who want me to clean my s*&%t up. I've written a few short stories in the last year that I've even tried cleaning up for other markets and they just don't work. Profanity and violence are part of the rhythm and mindset, and cozy is a whole different world. I admire people who can do it, but I'm not one of them.

Melodie Campbell said...

Apparently, I'm not one of them either, Steve! I've found when one writes comedy, publishers try to put you in the box that sells the best. I don't fit in boxes well, apparently. Thanks for commenting!

John Floyd said...

Melanie, keep doing what you're doing, the way you're doing it. I've done some "tailored" writing, and it's never as much fun.

As for humor, I just ordered a couple of novels I'd missed, of Christopher Buckley's. And I love Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich and Kinky Friedman and just about anyone who can write great humor. And there are a handful of writers who can do gritty novels and still make them humorous in places--we all know who they are--and that's a good thing also. Yes, humor's hard to write, but when it's done well, it's worth the trouble.

I always love your columns!

Melodie Campbell said...

Thanks John! I do know what you mean about tailored writing, or even writing for hire. I don't do well at that. For me, writing something longer than a short story is work, and I have to be really motivated by my own characters and story to do it. Thanks for commenting!

Jan Christensen said...

Loved and laughed at your post, Melodie. I could feel you pulling your hair out trying to satisfy you editor. I'm sure you'll figure it all out with good cheer and humor. Keep on keeping on.

Melodie Campbell said...

Thank you Jan! You should see what they do to my British spelling - grin.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I found my solution to the problem. I can now use the language I learned at my mother's knee. My next book is set in WWII Britain. I can have all the "bloody hell"s and "damn and blast"s I want.

Great post!

Ginger Bolton said...

Here's the way I look at it:

We seldom write dialogue exactly as it would be spoken. We leave out most or all of the ums and uhs (or ehs.) We leave out some of the niceties like the nearly meaningless greetings people utter by rote, you know, like: "Hello, how are you?" and "Fine, thanks, how are you?" Snore.

If you're writing for readers who crave the gritty realism of profanity, you can sprinkle it in or toss it in by whole handfuls.

But if, like cozy authors, you're writing for readers who don't enjoy being distracted by word-bombs, you can simply leave them out. Like the ums, uhs, and ehs, no one misses them.

I have been known to write around them by describing picturesque or salty language in creative ways. A lot of profanity is, um, not particularly creative, and when we write, we have more fun when we're creative, don't we?

Debra Purdy Kong said...

This is exactly why I don't see myself ever writing a cozy. I like the genre and read a fiar bit of it, but I miss the expletives. It's not that I go all out with the f bombs or anything in my amateur sleuth mysteries, but to eliminate them completely? Just...no...not for me.

Melodie Campbell said...

Alison, I can't wait to read that book! I will feel right at home.

Melodie Campbell said...

Good points, Ginger! I think you should make a list of salty alternatives. I'd love to read it!

Melodie Campbell said...

Debra, for me it's more the sex and violence (whoops, did I say that? smile) The thing I find hard is having to use American expressions when I'm not American and it doesn't come naturally. I have to work at it. Thanks for commenting!

Anne R. Allen said...

This is why i'm fighting my publisher's urge to put cartoons on the covers of my mysteries. Yes, they're funny. But they aren't true cozies. People use real language and fall into bed with each other. Some of them are sex workers. Some are drag queens. There's no way the readers of the current style of cozies will enjoy my books. When they buy them by mistake, they write furious reviews about how characters take the Lord's name in vain. And oh, my they're offended by "bloody" and "sod off." So you've got your work cut out for you. I don't understand why you can't write mysteries that have some comedy and also a little dose of reality. Sigh.

Leigh Lundin said...

Funny, Melodie. I'm a bit surprised to learn thoroughly US cosies are 'de-Britishfied,' but what do I know? I still read Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie…

Melodie Campbell said...

You didn't know that, eh, Leigh? (note the eh) We also aren't allowed to use Canadian settings - yes, you heard that right. American publishers don't want books set in Canada. Our agents (and I have a New York agent) say they can't sell them. Sad, because we are really cool (sic) people up here.

Leigh Lundin said...

Really cool during January! (heh heh) But yeah, why the geographism? (© LL 2020) Maybe set novels in the Rockies, without specifying which. Who's to know?

Sylvia McNicoll said...

Your goddaughter series with all the humour make for very cozy reads, if not cozy murder mysteries by strict format. Why don't you introduce a Canadian character in an American setting--similar to Paul Gross in Due South.

Melodie Campbell said...

Anne, I've experienced the same as you! When people buy the Goddaughter series, expecting a cozy (because they've been told they are humorous) I get angry reviews. And your books are certainly NOT cozies! I smile at the very thought of it!!

Melodie Campbell said...

I'm actually doing that in my WIP, Sylvia! It's odd though, how our agents tell us that American readers prefer American characters and settings. I had that from the highest source (Helen Heller.) Thanks for commenting!